One victory for plagiarism
You may remember the saga of McGill University
student Jesse Rosenfeld, who back in October was given a zero
on an economics essay after refusing to hand in his paper through
the online plagirism detecting service turnitin.com. Rosenfeld
claimed that providing students’ essays to a private
company constituted a violation of his intellectual property
Nearly three months later, the decision came down. Rosenfeld
will have his zero stricken from the record and his paper will
be marked with no consequences.
In deciding in favour of Rosenfeld, the university undermined
the authority of the professor. By not providing an explanation
for their reasoning, it makes it seem they were only trying
to avoid a lawsuit, not to do what was in the best interest
The Canadian Federation of Students and their national chairperson
Ian Boyko, who staunchly defended Rosenfeld, claimed turnitin.com
was “a substitute for hiring enough faculty members to
take the time to read student work.”
This inaccurate description misses the problem altogether.
The website does not grade the work; it only catches passages
that seem too similar to other works. For students who don’t
plagarize their essay, then there’s nothing to worry
about. Since the Internet makes it easier than ever to plagarize
an essay, it only stands to reason that professors should use
the same technology as a defense. The CFS has taken an ideological
stance and is trying to defend its support of Rosenfeld, but
realistically they have not thought their decision through
to the end.
Turnitin.com is not a scheme cooked up by universities to
make money off their students’ work. The website is run
by a private company that provides a service, and thus should
be allowed to make money off it; this would be like criticizing
D.B. Weldon Library for spending the late fees they collect
Let’s also put an end to the idea of the essay as “private
intellectual property,” since realistically these papers
do not represent years worth of intense research and study.
The majority of students are writing (and maybe even conceiving)
essays the night before they’re due.
Professors and TAs routinely show essays to their peers in
order to get opinions on their quality and content, so it’s
not as if the paper is some kind of a sacred bond between teacher
and student. The CFS may hail this as a victory for personal
freedom, but it’s really a victory for plagarism.
Rosenfeld may claim to be fighting for students’ rights,
but if this decision by McGill ends up with even one plagarist
using this loophole to avoid electronic detection, then it
is students who will be hurt by cheaters soiling the value
of a university degree.